When Lina Meruane first sees red, she is angry at the gringos, because the gringos always complain about other people's fun. The image of them eating breakfasts of cold milk "in their impeccable underwear and ironed faces" causes a firecracker to go off in her head, and she watches the "shockingly beautiful blood" gush and thicken in her eye. From that point forward, she is blind, and all she sees is not darkness but blood, a red gauze penetrated by light.
Is this the story of Meruane, the author of Seeing Red (Deep Vellum, 170 pages, $14.95)? The author, like the novel's narrator, is a Chilean writer named Lina (or Lucina) who lives in New York, and who suffered an episode of blindness after a stroke.
But Meruane, in interviews, has pronounced herself unable to write a straight William Styron-like memoir of illness. And so instead, Meruane—whom author Roberto Bolaño has hailed as one of the most exciting writers in a new generation of Chilean authors—has bound up her fictional and real selves unreliably, intensely and inextricably on the page. This is her first book available in English, rendered by translator Megan McDowell as a propulsive slide down chutes of words.
Meruane's vision of blindness is, paradoxically a riot of sensory detail. At first, it even seems a form of freedom—because she no longer has to treat her life with constant panic of bursting the capillaries that coil around the humors of her eyes. "Stop smoking, first of all," she is told, "and then don't hold your breath, don't cough, do not for any reason pick up packages, boxes, suitcases…"
Even as she becomes more and more dependent on the people around her, especially her boyfriend, Ignacio, it seems that the lives of those close to her are the ones that become more constricted and defined by her new blindness. She begins referring to Ignacio as her "slave"—mocking and testing the limits of unconditional love. And she allows herself, often selfishly or cruelly, to redefine herself at will.
It is a remarkable book, literally and figuratively black-humored, separated into a series of dense miniatures, each with its own theme: "suicide techniques," say, or "blackmail," or "love is blind too." This last section is, of course, the dominant theme of the book—and yet in writing it down she made it a joke. But it's the sort that slips between your ribs.
Go: Lina Meruane is at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 800-878-7323, on Monday, May 23. 7:30 pm. Free.